I was a little nerd // I was a raging fire

When I was in my early teen years, I was only allowed to listen to Christian music. Luckily, I was mostly fine with that, because there were some phenomenal artists producing music in that genre during those years. Albums of lyrical depth and musical quality were being produced in that “era” that I still listen to frequently and love to this day.

One of about five groups that were producing really great material (in my opinion) during those years was Jars of Clay. (They’re actually still producing really great stuff… and the band has been around for over 20 years. Am I getting old?)

It was a time when I was asking a lot of questions about the world, and my role in it. I was highly curious, and highly sensitive to issues of injustice. In 2003, Jars released a cd called “Who We Are Instead.” (To this day, still one of my favorites). I was 13 years old. In the CD insert, there was a brief mention of Africa, and something about blood and water. In those days, I still had to ask to use the family computer and get on the internet. I spent all of my allocated internet time that day researching what turned out to be the very, very infant stages of an organization being founded to address the water and HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa.

I was captivated.

I loved music, I was curious about the world and about injustice. In a moment, the two intersected. Artists were bringing the stories of these far away people to life, and I was all in. And they were just barely beginning.

I watched as Blood:Water Mission was founded by a group of artists who were passionate about this place called Africa. I watched as they brought on this college aged girl named Jena to create and direct the organization’s programs.

I was enamored.

She was eight or nine years older than me. (College seemed like an eternity away at the age of 13). She was passionate and articulate, independent, risk taking, and I hung on her every word. I paid close attention as she led this organization, backed by Grammy award winning musicians. I didn’t know that she had no experience. I didn’t know that all she was going on was passion and vision. She was my hero.

It was from them, from Jena Lee and Dan Haseltine from Jars of Clay that I first learned about the issues affecting Sub Saharan Africa. They would write blogs, and I would print them and keep them in a binder. They would write chapters in books on activism and global issues, and I would buy them and read the whole thing. I learned brand new words, such as “cynicism,” “idealism,” and “holistic.” I learned how the Christian church was slow to respond to pressing issues around the world. I learned about a far away culture and place that seemed so heartbreakingly beautiful.

Most importantly, it was from them that I first learned of the intersectionality of HIV, women’s rights, and sanitation in Sub Saharan Africa. I was like 14. Other kids my age were just getting over Backstreet Boys obsessions and I was obsessed with… a crisis on the other side of the world? I was a raging fire. I weirded my friends out. Including David, who at the time was not interested in dating me… probably for this reason. I was a little nerd who was dedicating literally all of my free time to researching a really big disease (I soon learned the word “pandemic”), and socio-political issues on the other side of the world. I read every book I could find. I had decided that I was a student of Africa. I remember writing that in a journal. By the time I finally made it to college, my professors were freaked out by the knowledge base I had developed. I wrote every paper on the issues that had so captured my attention. But I knew I needed to learn more from experience. I came incredibly close to taking an internship with Blood:Water Mission in Nashville… but somehow I ended up in Tanzania instead.

In Tanzania, I met a little girl named Victoria who was an AIDS orphan. She was 9 years old, and she had AIDS too. And Tuberculosis. She could barely stand, she wasn’t eating.. I carried her home from church one day because she was too weak. Two years later, she died. When I heard, I was beside myself. I wanted her to live. I wanted to give the rest of my life to her so that even though she died, she could live. I was all in. There was a fire in my heart.

I started a nonprofit organization by accident, kind of. I never really meant for it to happen the way it did. But I had friendships and relationships in Africa that I maintained, and I think that demands something of you. I met people there with vision for their communities without resources to make it happen. Even more than that, I saw people around me in America and felt like they needed to know what I had come to know. The kind of hope that I have only found on that side of the world. Somehow before I even realized it, I was managing this thing that came to need a 501-c3 certificate, and suddenly became a nonprofit organization. It was incredibly small, very challenging, scary, and I loved it. The same holds true today. Under the Same Tree starts with microfinance and economic empowerment, but the ultimate goal is to utilize the effects of the economic empowerment to reduce women’s vulnerability to HIV, to empower the widows and the single moms, to increase communities’ capability to care for orphans, and to prevent kids from being orphaned and abandoned in the first place. You see, in this region of the world, all of these things are interrelated and interconnected. It’s so hard to address just one thing in isolation. But we will take it slowly.

Back to Blood:Water Mission.

Jena Lee Nardella released a book this past week, chronicling her story of starting Blood:Water. She was my hero when I was a teenager, and I was able to hear how her fears and insecurities in those years are so very much like the ones I have now.

She wrote of early years, when they had so few donors and supporters, of a year they raised little over $1500. I realized profoundly that the little chunks of $30 I gave out of my teenage spending money that year were probably a significant fraction of that amount. I remembered poignantly the way that her story set me on a significant path. It is so interesting to go back and realize how your story can be wrapped up with someone else’s, even if you don’t know them.

At the end of her book, she writes:

“True hope is always hard. It is not a passive wishing. It is an active exercise, a choice, an intention. Hope means giving up apathy and despair and instead embracing the uncertainty that terrifies you. It is the sacrifice of keeping your heart soft… We will not feel the rush of serving as we did once, but we will stay with it anyways. It means admitting that the world is indeed a hard place to live, and it will likely break our heart if we keep engaging with it, but we will choose to hope anyway… it’s less about having it all together and more about the unwavering commitment to keep walking.”

I thank God for early 2000s Christian folk/rock music. I thank God those artists chose to believe in a college aged girl named Jena. I thank God her words and actions have propelled me forward for over a decade. I am so proud of what Blood:Water is today and all they have accomplished. I’m honored to have watched this organization grow from the very, very beginning. I’m thankful for all they taught me. I’ll always be a student of Africa. But now I am a sister, a friend, a partner. I’m still all in.

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